Let us Ramble: On Unity

Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.

As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)

“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”

In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:

“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”

The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.

Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.

Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.

Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.

Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.

So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?

In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.

I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.

Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.

Let us Seek: Shipwreck ahoy!

For today’s blog I thought we could spend some time with one of the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s readings include a beautiful passage from the Book of Acts. I believe that this passage has a good word for all of us. The passage I am referring to reads: (Acts 27:7-12, NRSV)

“We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind was against us, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Sailing past it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.

Since much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous, because even the Fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, saying, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. Since the harbor was not suitable for spending the winter, the majority was in favor of putting to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, where they could spend the winter. It was a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest.”

The Apostle Paul has been a leader in the church for several years. Paul had also been a leader within the religious elite of the Jewish people before converting to Christianity. Paul was a leader who knew how to convince others to his point of view.

Paul still manages to end up on a boat that is headed into a shipwreck. Paul may be spirit-filled, wise, and a leader of others, but Paul is still on a boat that is going on a very perilous journey that will end in disaster.

"Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast" by Thomas Butterworth

“Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast” by Thomas Butterworth, ~1810 CE. Located in the “Yale Center for British Art”

Have you ever felt as if you are on a boat headed for disaster which you cannot control? We all have moments in our lives where things seem out of control. We all have moments where we could tear out whatever hair we have in frustration. Interestingly enough, most of us know that on occasion everyone faces these moments in our heads but we still refuse to believe it with our hearts.

When you read the Bible it becomes absolutely clear on many things, but let’s focus on one point in particular today. Bad things happen to good people. Whether you are Job, Abraham, Paul, or even Jesus Christ, life involves moments that are neither avoidable nor pleasant. Job was considered a peerless person by Christ (Job 1:8) but still loses almost everything. Abraham is called into a new life and a new covenant multiple times by God, but still needs to rescue his nephew from captivity (Genesis 14). Paul (as previously stated) was shipwrecked despite knowing that the journey ahead of him would lead to disaster. Jesus Christ was crucified–the cup of suffering was not taken away.

Jesus Christ also stated (Matthew 5:44-45) that we should “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” While he was speaking of love, Jesus taught the same truth that I am trying to express in the midst of his lesson. The sun rises and the rain falls on both the good people of the world and on those with a propensity towards evil.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ does not mean that everything will be perfect. In fact, being a follower of Jesus Christ often means that you will face difficulties. The promise made to believers is not a promise that they will be free from challenge. The promise God makes through Jesus Christ is that we will not be alone in our challenge.

We who follow Christ are given hope through the love of God. We who follow Christ are given presence through not only the Holy Spirit but through the powerful presence of Jesus in our lives. Consider the words of John 17: (NRSV)

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

If Christ is the messenger, then we are the recipients of the love he carried into the world for us. That love is deep, powerful, and meaningful. The thunderstorms of life will strike, crash, and thunder around us, but we have the love Christ has planted in our hearts. Paul the Shipwrecked wrote this in Romans 8: (NRSV)

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

My friends, Paul’s words speak for themselves. May you have faith and trust even as the boats of life carry you into the storms. May God help you, comfort you, and give you peace. May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).